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The GP crisis. And why it may prove that the lockdown sceptics had a point.

“We’re still operating under pandemic conditions” is the automatic message I receive when I phone my GP practice. Like many people in the UK, I have been bemused to find out that face to face appointments aren’t available at my surgery, even in spite of the fact that lockdown is over, and the economy has fully reopened.

Data shows that while 80 per cent of GP appointments were conducted face to face before the pandemic, in July only 57 per cent were. And far from the vaccine roll out boosting face-to-face appointments, the opposite trend appears to have happened, with GPs on course to see 80 million fewer people in person this year than in 2019.

Experts such as Professor Karol Sikora, an oncologist, are incredibly worried about the consequences of remote appointments; he tells me that “over my career I’ve probably held over 100,000 face-to-face appointments with patients and you pick up something important every single time. A patient’s body language, visual symptoms and in-person physical examination are all crucial to getting to the crux of the issue.”

The Government is concerned too; in the last few days, Boris Johnson has warned that patients must be allowed to see doctors face-to-face. Ministers will be under no illusions that the UK could be on course for a health crisis much worse than Covid; it is already estimated that 175,000 diagnoses of key conditions were missed last year.

So what exactly is going on with GP practices? Why – with the vaccine here, more PPE and better Covid treatments – are they continuing to operate in pandemic conditions? And how does the Government deal with this matter? 

When I started out this piece, I simply asked the receptionist at my GP why face-to-face appointments aren’t going ahead, and I was intrigued by her response. She had no idea, and responded as though she’d never been posed the question before.

However, reports suggest there are several big reasons for the situation.

First, GPs are feeling overstretched, due to staff shortages, which the Government has been trying to remedy with a recruitment drive. It’s unsurprising that some want to continue with the video/ digital system deployed during the pandemic, so as to get through patients quicker.

Second is that e-consults have not come out of nowhere; Coronavirus, in fact, sped up a move towards digital/phone services that was already under way. E-consults are not necessarily bad in themselves – saving time for digitally-savvy patients in a hurry.

But the main issue is one of accessibility, particularly with those who find technology or staying on the phone difficult. As Dr Ben Spencer, the MP for Runnymede and Weybridge and former psychiatrist, tells me: “Digital exclusion will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable in society”. 

The third, under-reported reason why GP surgeries aren’t fully open is to do with widespread variations in the “physical environment” of practices up and down the country. Some, for instance, are purpose-built, with ventilation and lots of space, meaning that they find it easier to see people compared to smaller surgeries. The latter will be behind the troublesome statistics.

While the Government has issued strong statements about GPs reopening – with Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, warning that it’s “high time” for them to get back to normal – behind the scenes the Department of Health has taken a softer approach, speaking to NHS England and GP groups about the pressures they face, and how these can be alleviated.

Although the Government has invested £270 million to expand GP practice, improving things isn’t simply about throwing money at the NHS. Bureaucracy, for instance, is something that doctors have complained about; reducing it may be next on Javid’s list.

The Government will also be keen to cool tensions between the public and GPs. Yesterday Javid also held an “emergency” meeting with the BMA GP committee chair to discuss the abuse currently being suffered by GPs, in large part because the media has framed the story as “lazy doctors” against everyone else. In fact, the situation is more complicated than has been presented.

Is this issue going away any time soon? The biggest challenge for the Government is recruiting staff. Although record numbers of people are training to be GPs, it takes years before they can actually practice. No doubt Government critics will use worker shortages to criticise Brexit, and it may come under pressure to recruit from outside the UK.

At the same time, the NHS backlog will increase, and GPs will feel even more reticent to move away from phone/digital services, particularly as flu season arrives. Expect challenging months ahead, which may leave lockdown sceptics feeling vindicated.

After all, they warned that shutting down the economy would prove more dangerous than the immediate threat of the virus. The GP debacle, and the data that’s beginning to emerge from missed appointments, may be the biggest evidence for their argument yet.

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WATCH: Capitalism and markets are key to achieving Net Zero

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‘We have the tools for a green industrial revolution but time is desperately short.’ Johnson’s speech – full text

“Mr President, Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen. 

An inspection of the fossil record over the last 178 million years – since mammals first appeared – reveals that the average mammalian species exists for about a million years before it evolves into something else or vanishes into extinction.

Of our allotted lifespan of a million, humanity has been around for about 200,000.

In other words, we are still collectively a youngster.

If you imagine that million years as the lifespan of an individual human being – about eighty years – then we are now sweet 16.

We have come to that fateful age when we know roughly how to drive and we know how to unlock the drinks cabinet and to engage in all sorts of activity that is not only potentially embarrassing but also terminal.

In the words of the Oxford philosopher Toby Ord “we are just old enough to get ourselves into serious trouble”.

We still cling with part of our minds to the infantile belief that the world was made for our gratification and pleasure and we combine this narcissism with an assumption of our own immortality.

We believe that someone else will clear up the mess we make, because that is what someone else has always done.

We trash our habitats again and again with the inductive reasoning that we have got away with it so far, and therefore we will get away with it again.

My friends the adolescence of humanity is coming to an end.

We are approaching that critical turning point – in less than two months – when we must show that we are capable of learning, and maturing, and finally taking responsibility for the destruction we are inflicting, not just upon our planet but ourselves.

It is time for humanity to grow up.

It is time for us to listen to the warnings of the scientists – and look at Covid, if you want an example of gloomy scientists being proved right – and to understand who we are and what we are doing.

The world – this precious blue sphere with its eggshell crust and wisp of an atmosphere – is not some indestructible toy, some bouncy plastic romper room against which we can hurl ourselves to our heart’s content.

Daily, weekly, we are doing such irreversible damage that long before a million years are up, we will have made this beautiful planet effectively uninhabitable – not just for us but for many other species.

And that is why the Glasgow COP26 summit is the turning point for humanity.

We must limit the rise in temperatures – whose appalling effects were visible even this summer – to 1.5 degrees.

We must come together in a collective coming of age.

We must show we have the maturity and wisdom to act.

And we can.

Even in this feckless youth we have harnessed clean energy from wind and wave and sun.

We have released energy from within the atom itself and from hydrogen, and we have found ways to store that energy in increasingly capacious batteries and even in molten salt.

We have the tools for a green industrial revolution but time is desperately short.

Two days ago, in New York we had a session in which we heard from the leaders of the nations most threatened by climate change: the Marshall Islands, the Maldives, Bangladesh and many others.

And they spoke of the hurricanes and the flooding and the fires caused by the extreme meteorological conditions the world is already seeing.

And the tragedy is that because of our past inaction, there are further rises in temperature that are already baked in – baked is the word.

And if we keep on the current track then the temperatures will go up by 2.7 degrees or more by the end of the century.

And never mind what that will do to the ice floes: we will see desertification, drought, crop failure, and mass movements of humanity on a scale not seen before, not because of some unforeseen natural event or disaster, but because of us, because of what we are doing now.

And our grandchildren will know that we are the culprits and that we were warned and they will know that it was this generation that came centre stage to speak and act on behalf of posterity and that we missed our cue and they will ask what kind of people we were to be so selfish and so short sighted.

In just 40 days time we need the world to come to Glasgow to make the commitments necessary.

And we are not talking about stopping the rise in temperatures – it is alas too late for that – but to restrain that growth, as I say, to 1.5 degrees.

And that means we need to pledge collectively to achieve carbon neutrality – net zero – by the middle of the century.

And that will be an amazing moment if we can do it because it will mean that for the first time in centuries humanity is no longer adding to the budget of carbon in the atmosphere, no longer thickening that invisible quilt that is warming the planet, and it is fantastic that we now have countries representing 70 per cent of the world’s GDP committed to this objective.

But if we are to stave off these hikes in temperature we must go further and faster – we need all countries to step up and commit to very substantial reductions by 2030 – and I passionately believe that we can do it by making commitments in four areas – coal, cars, cash and trees.

I am not one of those environmentalists who takes a moral pleasure in excoriating humanity for its excess.

I don’t see the green movement as a pretext for a wholesale assault on capitalism.

Far from it.

The whole experience of the Covid pandemic is that the way to fix the problem is through science and innovation, the breakthroughs and the investment that are made possible by capitalism and by free markets, and it is through our Promethean faith in new green technology that we are cutting emissions in the UK.

When I was a kid we produced almost 80 per cent of our electricity from coal; that is now down to two per cent or less and will be gone altogether by 2024.

We have put in great forests of beautiful wind turbines on the drowned prairies of Doggerland beneath the North Sea.

In fact we produce so much offshore wind that I am thinking of changing my name to Boreas Johnson in honour of the North Wind.

And I know that we are ambitious in asking the developing world to end the use of coal power by 2040 and for the developed world to do so by 2030, but the experience of the UK shows that it can be done and I thank President Xi for what he has done to end China’s international financing of coal and I hope China will now go further and phase out the domestic use of coal as well, because the experience of the UK shows it can be done.

And when I was elected mayor of London only 13 years ago, I was desperate to encourage more electric vehicles and we put in charging points around the city.

And I am afraid that in those days they were not greatly patronised.

But the market in EVs in the UK is now growing at an extraordinary pace – maybe two thirds every year – and Nissan is sufficiently confident to invest £1 billion in a new EV factory and a gigafactory for the batteries.

And that is because we have set a hard deadline for the sale of new hydrocarbon ICEs of 2030 and again we call on the world to come together to drive this market so that by 2040 there are only zero emission vehicles on sale anywhere in the world.

And you can make these cuts in pollution while driving jobs and growth: we have cut our greenhouse gas emissions by 44 per cent in the last 30 years while expanding our GDP by 78 per cent.

And we will now go further by implementing one of the biggest nationally determined contributions –  the NDC is the pledge we ask every country to make in cutting carbon  going down by 68 per cent by 2030, compared to where we were in 1990.

We are making a huge bet on hydrogen, we are expanding nuclear,  we are helping people to reduce their own household CO2.

We are working towards Jet Zero – the first large carbon free passenger plane.

And we also recognise that this is not just about using technical fixes for CO2: we need to restore the natural balance, we need to halt and reverse the loss of trees and biodiversity by 2030, and that is why we in the UK are committed to beautifying the landscape, strengthening our protection against flooding, by planting millions more trees.

We must also work towards the crucial Kunming summit in China and I call on all nations to follow the example of Imran Khan who has pledged to plant 10 billion trees in Pakistan alone.

And we in the developed world must recognise our obligation to help.

We started this industrial revolution in Britain: we were the first to send the great puffs of acrid smoke to the heavens on a scale to derange the natural order.

And though we were setting in train a new era of technology that was itself to lead to a massive global reduction in poverty, emancipating billions around the world, we were also unwittingly beginning to quilt the great tea cosy of CO2 and so we understand when the developing world looks to us to help them and we take our responsibilities.

And that’s why two years ago I committed that the UK would provide £11.6 billion to help the rest of the world to tackle climate change and in spite of all the pressures on finances caused by Covid, we have kept that promise to the letter.

And I am so pleased and encouraged by some of the pledges we have heard here at UNGA, including from Denmark, and now a very substantial commitment from the US that brings us within touching distance of the $100 billion pledge. 

But we must go further, and we must be clear that government alone will not be able to do enough.

We must work together so that the international financial institutions – the IMF, the World Bank – are working with governments around the world to leverage in the private sector, because it is the trillions of dollars of private sector cash that will enable developing nations – and the whole world – to make the changes necessary.

It was the UK government that set the strike price for the private sector to come in and transform our country into the Saudi Arabia of wind, and only yesterday the UK’s first sovereign green bond raised £10 billion on the markets, from hard-headed investors who want to make money.

And these investments will not only help the countries of the world to tackle climate change: they will produce millions and millions of high wage, high skill jobs, and today’s workforce and the next generation will have the extra satisfaction of knowing that they are not only doing something useful – such as providing clean energy – but helping to save the planet at the same time.

And every day green start-ups are producing new ideas, from feeding seaweed to cows to restrain their traditional signs of digestive approval, to using AI and robotics to enhance food production.

And it is these technological breakthroughs that will cut the cost for consumers, so that we have nothing to fear and everything to gain from this green industrial revolution.

And when Kermit the frog sang It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green, I want you to know he was wrong – and he was also unnecessarily rude to Miss Piggy.

We have the technology: we have the choice before us.

Sophocles is often quoted as saying that there are many terrifying things in the world, but none is more terrifying than man, and it is certainly true that we are uniquely capable of our own destruction, and the destruction of everything around us.

But what Sophocles actually said was that man is deinos and that means not just scary but awesome -and he was right.

We are awesome in our power to change things and awesome in our power to save ourselves, and in the next 40 days we must choose what kind of awesome we are going to be.

I hope that COP 26 will be a 16th birthday for humanity in which we choose to grow up, to recognise the scale of the challenge we face, to do what posterity demands we must, and I invite you in November to celebrate what I hope will be a coming of age and to blow out the candles of a world on fire.

See you in Glasgow.”

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Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Rayner mocks Raab and steals Starmer’s thunder

Angela Rayner is good at looking and sounding unimpressed. With a derisive smile playing across her face, and in rasping Mancunian tones, she asked Dominic Raab:

“How many days a worker on the minimum wage would have to work this year in order to afford a night at a luxury hotel, say in Crete?”

Raab had the decency to smile at this caustic reference to his late, unhappy holiday, which was interrupted by the fall of Kabul. He said some stuff about easing the burden on the lowest paid, but couldn’t think of a retort that would remove Rayner’s grin.

She proceeded to accuse him of “complaining about having to share his 115-room taxpayer-funded mansion with the Foreign Secretary”.

He replied that “she should check her facts”, since Chevening, the mansion in question, is funded by a charity, with not a penny paid by the taxpayer.

Somehow one felt that Raab, in the heat of battle, had not picked the best ground on which to fight this outbreak of class war.

It is possible, of course, that he did not wish to outshine the Prime Minister, for whom he was deputising.

Rayner clearly did wish to outshine Sir Keir Starmer, for whom she was standing in. Her rudeness came as a delightful change from his cautious, lawyerly manner.

Raab, himself by training a lawyer, today played the role usually taken by Sir Keir. He had a complete grasp of the arguments and facts, but was deficient in imagination, and therefore unable to raise anyone’s spirits.

No one will have got to the end of this session wondering why Raab cannot replace Boris Johnson, who has apparently been shuttling by train between New York and Washington, raising people’s spirits everywhere from the United Nations to the White House.

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WATCH: The AUKUS deal “is not exclusionary or adversarial towards anybody”, says Johnson

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Payne journeys through the Red Wall seats to discover how Labour lost them and Johnson won

Broken Heartlands: A Journey Through Labour’s Lost England by Sebastian Payne

The first thing Sebastian Payne prompted me to do was to order a copy of English Journey by J. B. Priestley. For Payne starts his book in Gateshead, where he grew up, and is sporting enough to quote what Priestley wrote about it in 1933:

“No true civilisation could have produced such a town, which is nothing better than a huge dingy dormitory.”

Payne is not a second Priestley. He is neither such a good writer, nor so rude. But he is a good investigative journalist, who wants to understand what happened in the Red Wall seats where the Conservatives made such inroads in 2019.

The term “Red Wall” was coined by the pollster James Kanagasooriam to describe seats which had never returned a Tory MP since 1997 (or in some cases since the Second World War); voted on average by 63 per cent for Brexit (compared to the national average of 52 per cent); had a substantial Labour majority during the 1990s; and also had a substantial minority Tory vote.

Four such seats went blue for the first time at the 2017 general election: Mansfield, North East Derbyshire, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, and Walsall North.

Thirty four went blue in 2019, and another 14 stayed in Labour hands. Payne quotes a Labour aide who says the 2019 result could have been even worse:

“We looked at the North and Midlands and thought the whole thing could just go, it could have been another Scotland for us.”

But to lose 34 seats is still pretty bad, and Payne sets out to discover what happened, and whether 2019 “was a fluke, or a realignment”.

His method is to visit ten Red Wall seats, each of which gets about 30 pages of text: Blyth Valley, North West Durham, Sedgefield, Wakefield, Don Valley, Great Grimsby, North East Derbyshire, Coventry North West, Heywood and Middleton, and Burnley.

In the course of his researches he interviews 120 people, including many former Labour MPs, often spoken to remotely, in part because of the pandemic. So we hear from Tony Blair, David Blunkett, David Miliband, Alan Johnson and many others.

In Blyth Valley, he meets Ronnie Campbell, former miner, Labour MP there from 1987-2019, when he retired because of a heart complaint; and Ian Levy, former mental health nurse, who proceeded to win the seat by 712 votes for the Conservatives.

Levy told Payne how he came to stand:

“We would often go out for a meal or a drink, me and my wife Maureen. On the wander back, when I’d had a few beers, I would start complaining about the state of the town centre: the state of the bus shelters, the feeling of despondency there was in the town where people feel really, really let down, and that their vote is taken for granted.

“I think she was happy to hear this, once, twice, maybe 30 times. But once it got to 40 or 50, she’d absolutely had enough. I remember this one night in particular she said, ‘Either do something about it or shut up.’ And I said, ‘Right, OK then.’”

The next day he told her he was going to stand for Parliament. His “gut feeling” took him towards the Conservatives, but he found there was no Conservative Association in Blyth Valley, so he wrote to David Cameron, explaining his passion for Blyth, the problems he had identified and how he intended to fix them.

Much to his and Maureen’s surprise, he received a positive reply, and in 2016 was invited to CCHQ for an interview, after which he became the prospective parliamentary candidate.

His first campaign, in the 2017 general election, was run with £500 donated by Matt Ridley, described by Payne as “the aristocratic science writer and libertarian campaigner based in Northumberland”.

Levy’s daughter and her friends distributed leaflets, and the Conservative vote rose to 15,855 (it had been 8,346 in 2015), but the genial Campbell was still well ahead, with 23,770 votes.

Two years later, the Conservative vote increased again, to 17,440, while Campbell’s successor fell back to 16,728. Levy in his second campaign had won a famous victory.

“One of the nuisances of the ballot,” Lord Salisbury once remarked, “is that when the oracle has spoken you never know what it means.”

There is a temptation, when seeking to explain what happened in the Red Wall seats, to pretend to greater knowledge than is actually possible.

It can be difficult enough to know what is going on inside one’s own head, let alone anyone else’s, as one makes up one’s mind how to vote. Here is Payne on his own decision in the EU Referendum of 2016:

“On both sides of my family, almost everyone voted Leave. I was deeply torn: my northern hinterland and instincts pulled me towards Brexit, but after twenty minutes in the polling booth, my head put a tick in the Remain column.”

One rejoices to find such a balanced outlook, such conscious doubt, in a reporter for a newspaper, The Financial Times, which expressed such dogmatic enthusiasm for remaining in the EU.

There is an overwhelming sense, in every place visited by Payne, of having seen better days. Great industries have collapsed,  so has the communal life which they engendered, and handsome town centres are left to rot.

Local pride is wounded at every turn by evidence of neglect, shoddiness and former greatness. The prosperous, of whom there are more than one might think, flee to houses on the periphery.

And as Payne explains, the Labour coalition has broken down:

“From its inception, the party was built on a Hampstead-to-Humberside electoral alliance, bridging metropolitan liberal voters, typified in the north London enclave, to the working-class voters in England’s working-class towns. Brexit annihilated this alliance, but Labour’s shift on other matters set the stage for the demise, according to Blair.”

Blair talks at considerable length to Payne. The ingenuity with which he justifies himself is impressive, and his self-righteousness is insufferable.

Nothing is ever Blair’s fault. Norman Tebbit, speaking from his office in the House of Lords, strikes a different note:

“There were mining communities in rural areas where there was very little other work. Unfortunately we could have run those mines down much more slowly. We could have done more to help to bring jobs to those areas. There was a deep and profound economic and social change that went on, which was adverse to those local people.”

One of the paradoxes of Payne’s account is that he talks to so many politicians, he does not always allow the voices of local people to be heard.

We instead get the generally rather bland language of professional politicians, discussing what to do about the Red Wall seats, what to do about Brexit, and still cut off from the people who in 2016 seized the chance to make their voice heard, administering a most tremendous shock to the metropolitan liberals who had ignored them for so long.

The weakness of Theresa May after the 2017 general election turned out to be a trap for the Remainers. Peter Mandelson tells Payne how Blair assembled a group of like-minded Labour figures and told them they had “a real opportunity” to get Leaver voters to think again.

After they had spent some time trying to persuade Leave voters that leaving was not such a great idea, Mandelson told Blair “We’re not gaining traction here”, but Blair would not accept this.

The People’s Vote campaigners were not thinking straight. As Mandelson says, the question of “what would be on the ballot paper of a second referendum…was insoluble”.

Labour, which in 2017 was still promising to implement the referendum result, ended up in a ridiculous position at the 2019 election, seen by Leave voters as an attempt to wriggle out of getting Brexit done, and Johnson won a thumping victory.

Johnson enters this book at the end, campaigning in May 2021 in the Hartlepool by-election, another famous Tory victory:

“With Jill Mortimer, the Tory candidate, he paced up the seafront in his trademark blue suit – sans coat, despite the weather. He was mobbed. Soon, the traffic piled up as every car stopped to point and shout, ‘Boris!’ He was the Pied Piper in the middle of a hurricane. He asked each voter he stopped to talk to if the party could count on their support. Bar some who were uncertain, every one answered in the affirmative. No one said they were backing Labour. The response was unlike any I have seen to any politician on the campaign trail, in any election: dozens of Hartlepudlians wanted selfies and elbow bumps with the Prime Minister. You cannot imagine David Cameron or Theresa May eliciting such a response.”

Payne later interviews Johnson:

“Recalling the scenes on the beach front, I asked why he felt he was so personally popular with working-class voters, despite his Eton and Oxford background? Was it that he was seen as an unconventional political insurgent? After running his hand through his mop of hair several times, Johnson said, ‘Look, it beats me.’ He appeared to be on the cusp of revealing more, before restraining himself. ‘It’s not about me, this is about this country.’”

Yes, it is about what kind of country we are, what kind of nation. And to cast light on that question, I hope another author, a latter-day Priestley, will make an English journey and spend more time talking to random members of the public, unimportant people.

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Terry Barnes: The significance of this new U.S-UK-Australia security pact – and Johnson’s tilt to the Indo-Pacific

Terry Barnes advised Tony Abbott when he was a Cabinet minister in John Howard’s government.

It may have been missed in Britain midst the excitement of Boris Johnson’s reshuffle and the attention-greedy Sussexes making the cover of Time, but this week’s announcement by Boris Johnson, Joe Biden and Scott Morrison of a ‘trilateral security partnership’, to be known as AUKUS, is hugely significant.

It is to be a relationship of defence, technological and security cooperation. While it essentially formalises existing exchanges between three traditional allies, that in itself has historic strategic and geopolitical implications.

Here in Australia, this announcement is huge news. Not only is Australia formalising a security pact with her two greatest and closest traditional allies, but she is also being admitted by the US and UK into a very select club: countries operating nuclear-powered submarines. Morrison’s government is thereby walking away from a costly but irretrievably dysfunctional contract with the French to co-build a dozen conventional next-generation submarines, exposing itself to billions of dollars in termination costs.  But this hasn’t been a deal-breaker.

That AUKUS was announced, within eight months of the next Australian general election, is even more significant. It’s one thing for a conservative government to sign such a security agreement and pursue nuclear submarines. It’s quite another for a traditionally anti-nuclear and US-skeptical Labor party opposition to endorse such a radical reshaping of Australia’s national security framework. Yet it has – today publicly committed itself to the agreement should Labor win next year’s election, a possibility if opinion polls are right.

Furthermore, just weeks after marking its 70th anniversary, the joint announcement confirms that the ANZUS alliance of Australia, New Zealand and the United States is officially dead.

New Zealand suspended ANZUS almost 40 years ago, because it refused to allow US nuclear-powered ships into her ports: this week, Jacinda Ardern insisted that this bar would apply to nuclear-powered Australian submarines as well. Since New Zealand’s inflexible opposition to nuclear-powered ships sits with Ardern’s refusal to join any Five Eyes strategic arrangements that might antagonise China, AUKUS effectively kills off whatever vestiges of ANZUS are left.

Australia, on the other hand, has been increasingly vocal about the Chinese regime’s geostrategic muscle-flexing, as well as its internal behaviour. Morrison was the first world leader to demand that China account for the origin and escape of Covid-19 from Wuhan, and has given his MPs free rein to criticise China’s strategic ambitions and human rights record – despite the regime’s wolf warrior bullying diplomacy and trade retaliations. AUKUS reminds Xi Jinping that ‘little’ Australia has great and powerful friends, and that she does not stand alone in calling out his bullying.

Jinping certainly should sit up and take note of this critical new development. The two great Anglosphere powers are joining a third, Australia, in making it emphatically clear to China and the world that the Pacific and Indian oceans are not Chinese lakes. The UK and US giving Australia nuclear-powered submarine capability – with the speed, endurance and stealth that this capability ensures – means that there will be a local nuclear-powered, if not nuclear-armed deterrent straddling the approaches to busiest blue water sea-lanes in the world running through the South China Sea.

But from Britain’s perspective, this is a truly remarkable strategic development, the significance of which may not be immediately realised outside Whitehall.

AUKUS is not just sending HMS Queen Elizabeth through the Indian and Pacific Oceans to make an important but nevertheless symbolic freedom of navigation gesture to demonstrate Britain’s resistance to China’s increasingly bellicose aggression. For the first time in the half a century since she withdrew a standing presence from east of Suez, the United Kingdom is joining a formal geostrategic partnership in the Indo-Pacific.

That sends not only a starkly clear message to China: it reassures the entire Indo-Pacific region, and especially India, Japan, and South Korea – and Hong Kong and Taiwan – that their security interests are also British interests. Johnson, Ben Wallace and Liz Truss – fresh from negotiating, with Australia, Britain’s first post-Brexit free trade deal – have grasped the importance and necessity of the UK re-engaging in the Indo-Pacific strategically as well as economically.

And the United States benefits, too, in that strengthening the offensive as well as the defensive capability of a key regional ally in Australia will, in time, ease the burden of what Paul Kennedy years ago called ‘imperial overstretch’. Biden may have forgotten Morrison’s name in the leaders’ announcement hook-up, but surely realises how strategically important a politically stable, but strategically-strengthened, Australia will be to the overall peace and stability of the entire Indo-Pacific region.

To be sure, in Britain this announcement was overshadowed by other events. But in the longer term, AUKUS may well be part of any tangible and lasting legacy of Boris Johnson’s premiership.

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WATCH: Biden, Johnson and Morrison announce a new defence partnership

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Profile: Michael Gove – denied a great office of state once again. But given work on which Johnson’s future now depends.

Part of the charm of Michael Gove is that one never quite knows what he is going to do next. He was not expected to become, as we learned yesterday afternoon, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government.

At first glance, this looks like a disappointment. He has not been appointed to one of the great offices of state, either the Home Office, for which he lobbied hard, or the Foreign Office.

At second glance, he has been handed a portfolio where he will have more scope for creative reform than would have been the case in either of those departments.

The perilous issue of planning, imbued with decisions taken in the late 1940s and tensions between the haves and the have-nots, falls to him to resolve.

Are the Conservatives the party of One Nation, or just of the propertied classes, who believe that aspects of the status quo which favour them must be preserved?

This question of national unity runs through other aspects of his brief, mentioned specifically in the notice of his appointment:

“He takes on cross-Government responsibility for levelling up. He retains ministerial responsibility for the Union and elections.”

One of the dangers of the reshuffle was that responsibility for the Union would be forgotten or downplayed. It has not been: it remains in the hands of a Scot who is a passionate and knowledgeable Unionist.

Gove understands the paradox, recently expounded on these pages by Paul Goodman, that the Union depends on making a success of localism.

So does levelling up: it cannot become a synonym for the tepid egalitarianism with which after the Second World War an over-mighty centre sought to justify its power.

Local prosperity, whether in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, cannot be attained by pulling levers in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast.

Mayors can convene local leaders and enlist local energies in a way that ministers cannot. Westminster and the rest have long tried to do far too much, and have undermined local pride and initiative.

Levelling up must not mean imposing uniformity from Whitehall, as so often happened after 1945, with the great industries of the United Kingdom, and its great towns and cities, subjected to the dead hand of central control.

The United Kingdom will flourish best when its constituent parts are free, and no minister is more likely to rejoice in freedom, and in its corollary, variety, than Gove.

Consider this striking passage:

“An exotic background has never been a barrier to success in the Tory Party. Although it is supposedly the party of patriots, and of the family, the leaders it has selected include a Jew, a bachelor, a woman, a Canadian, an American and a clutch of unsuitable Scots.

“Of its historic hierarchy of influences and great names, Burke was in origin an Irish Whig, Disraeli a Jewish adventurer, Churchill half-American and wholly promiscuous in his party allegiance, Bonar Law and Macmillan were both of colonial stock, Heath was the unmarried son of a Broadstairs builder, Thatcher a grocer’s daughter, and John Major the son of a circus trapeze artist who faced financial ruin, and whose forebears lived in America. They may all have had hearts of oak but none was a prototypical John Bull.”

These paragraphs are taken from Michael Portillo: The Future of the Right, published in 1995 and written by Gove.

Several points at once emerge. One detects in the as yet obscure young author – he was 28, and working as a reporter on the Today programme – a certain impudent brio; a delight in the knowledge that improbable outsiders have often risen to the leadership of the Tory Party; and a willingness to take the risk of backing, in Michael Portillo, what turned out to be the wrong horse.

Not that it was by any means clear in 1995, or for many years afterwards, who was the right horse, let alone the Right horse.

Gove himself ran, in the Conservative leadership elections of 2016 and 2019, as one of the Right horses, and on both occasions finished third.

The term “obscure” had long since ceased to apply. The nation has recently rejoiced to see some grainy footage of him dancing in an Aberdeen night club.

He has served longer in the Cabinet than any other minister, and since the summer of 2019 has been responsible, as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, for a bewildering range of important tasks.

Whenever a tricky problem was in the news, Gove was as likely as not to be asked to tackle it. On Tuesday of this week, he was put in charge of the task force charged with sorting out problems in the supply chain.

An old friend says of him:

“He is now a true man of affairs – a man of business, more than ideology. He is now unfazeable – there is nothing anyone in the blob can do to faze him. He is wiser, but also sadder.”

No parliamentarian has a more abundant gift for raising Tory spirits. His winding-up speech on 19th January 2019, delivered at a low point in the fortunes of the Theresa May government, still provokes a kind of incredulous laughter at the sheer rudeness, and accuracy, of the ridicule he poured on Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson.

Gove put fresh heart into despondent Tory footsoldiers by showing them that despite the disconcerting processes of modernisation, despite every concession made by their party to the spirit of the age, an old-fashioned Oxford Union speech still has its place in the Tory armoury.

A ministerial colleague says of him:

“He is very brilliant, kind, thoughtful and intelligent – one of the most amusing people in politics, and one of the politest. From what I’ve been saying, you’d think he was a saint. The flaw is that he is still at heart a student politician – he loves the mechanisms of power, which stops him being able to do the great things he might do.”

During the Conservative leadership election of 2016, Gove knifed Boris Johnson: an act which in a student election might have enabled the assassin to seize the crown, but which in the glare of national publicity looked unforgiveable.

And yet he was soon forgiven; was brought back by May as Environment Secretary to strengthen the Government after the debacle of the 2017 general election; and has been treated by Johnson with magnanimity.

David Cameron could not find it in himself, when he published his memoirs, to be magnanimous about Gove’s decision to back the Leave side in the EU Referendum:

“One quality shone through, disloyalty. Disloyalty to me and, later, disloyalty to Boris.”

A friend of Gove says:

“Cameron treated him more harshly than Boris Johnson. There was a class element – Michael owes so much to us, we made him. But they didn’t make him. He’s a bloody talented bloke. And it’s a myth that he lied to Cameron. Michael always was a Brexiteer. He didn’t fess up because he knew it would be an unbearable clash.”

Gove and his wife, Sarah Vine, from whom recently to his sorrow he has parted, had become good friends of David and Samantha Cameron.

Yet in many ways, Gove has more in common with Johnson. Both of them delight in using humour to subversive effect, and both have a gift for spotting and encouraging talented people.

They like being surrounded by very clever advisers, and have known each other for a long time. Dominic Cummings was Gove’s accomplice long before he came to work for Johnson, and the same is true of such figures as Simone Finn and Henry Newman, still at the heart of the Downing Street machine.

Gove was born in 1967 in Aberdeen, taken into care, and adopted at the age of four months by Ernest and Christine Gove. They sent him to Robert Gordon’s College, where he blossomed into an accomplished debater, and from which he won a place to read English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.

He at once recognised the brilliance of Johnson, three years older than him, and backed him to become President of the Oxford Union. Gove went on to win that distinction himself, and proceeded to make his way in journalism, ascending to a high level on The Times and winning the esteem of Rupert Murdoch.

In 2005, he entered the Commons as MP for Surrey Heath and a member of the gilded Notting Hill set, clustered round the new leader of the party, David Cameron.

He became shadow Minister for Housing, and soon afterward shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, the somewhat authoritarian title conferred by Gordon Brown on Ed Balls.

Gove was now senior to Johnson, who had entered the Commons in 2001, but had suffered various disasters at the end of 2004, realised he was going to get nowhere much at Westminster as long as Cameron was leader, and went off to run for Mayor of London.

Cameron protected Gove during the expenses scandal of 2009 (when Gove was found to have ordered a number of expensive items from a shop owned by the Tory leader’s mother in law), and after the election victory of 2010 made him Education Secretary.

In that post Gove won his spurs by taking on and defeating the educational Establishment, but by 2014 he had become so unpopular with teachers that Cameron moved him to the post of Chief Whip.

After the Conservative victory of 2015 Gove was appointed Justice Secretary, a role in which he won golden opinions. The following year he broke with Cameron by backing Vote Leave, a decision which paved the way for Johnson to come out as a Leaver.

Perhaps someone will one day write a joint biography of these two statesmen. For the success of Johnson’s domestic agenda, his ability to demonstrate progress in the fields of housing, levelling up and defending the Union, now depends to a great extent on Gove.

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Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Johnson dodges questions on Universal Credit and crops

No sign of Dominic Raab or Gavin Williamson on the front bench at PMQs. Excitable spirits wondered whether the Foreign Secretary and Education Secretary had already been consigned for reeducation at some dreaded Johnsonian college, where they would be prepared for vital roles in the supply chain, perhaps driving heavy goods vehicles or getting in the harvest.

Sir Keir Starmer began by posing an unanswerable question:

“How many extra hours a week would a single parent working full time on the minimum wage have to work to get back the £20 a week the Prime Minister plans to take away from them in his Universal Credit cuts?”

When we call this question “unanswerable”, we mean Boris Johnson could not answer it without contradicting Therese Coffey, the Work and Pensions Secretary, who on Monday said “about two hours”, which nobody thought was right.

One could not help noticing Coffey was absent. Might she too be undergoing reeducation?

Johnson was not going to fall into the trap prepared for him by the Leader of the Opposition. “It is absurd,” he objected. “Every single recipient of Universal Credit would lose their benefits under Labour because they want to abolish Universal Credit, Mr Speaker.”

“The Prime Minister didn’t answer the question,” Sir Keir remarked.

“Wages are rising,” Johnson said, and sketched a picture of a happy land of high wages and high skills, which Labour would wreck by allowing unrestricted immigration.

Sir Keir drew a picture of an unhappy land where it would take “over nine hours a week just to get the money back”. How could anyone with children work an extra day a week just to replace the lost income?

Especially, he added, as the Government is also putting up taxes.

Johnson lamented that “the party of Nye Bevan” could fall so low as to vote against measures which would fix the NHS.

Sir Keir tried to put pressure on the Prime Minister by getting his benches to chant “up…up…up” as he mentioned tax rises.

“I see the panto season has come early,” Johnson retorted, and mocked Sir Keir for having written a 14,000 word essay about the future of socialism.

Sir Roger Gale (Con, North Thanet) brought bad news:

“On ‘Back British Farming’ day we’re in harvest time but, Mr Speaker, all is not safely gathered in.

“In three weeks, Thanet Earth in my constituency, the largest glasshouse company in the country growing tomatoes, has had to trash £320,000 worth of produce because of no pickers and no drivers.

“Because of the lack of labour force, the crops are rotting in our fields and on our trees.”

He urged the Prime Minister to “introduce immediately” a Covid Recovery Visa so this year’s crops are not lost.

Johnson declined to do so. He said the Government was “taking steps”, and the Seasonal Agricultural Scheme would be used to ensure that British farms get the workers they need.

And off he went to reshuffle his ministerial team: a measure which however comprehensive it is, might well not produce enough workers to get in the lost crops.

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